Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha: Numbers 8 – 10
Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha is packed with a variety of issues, commencing with the lighting of the menorah. Thus in 8:2 we read YHVH’s instructions to Moshe: “When you raise (literal translation) the lamps…,” being the words that the Parasha is named after. We may note that last week’s Parasha’s title and leitmotif had to do with “raising” and “lifting” too, although an altogether different Hebrew verb was used for that purpose. The sanctification and service duties of the Levites is the next topic, and provision for keeping Pesach, for those unable to celebrate it on its given date, follow. The instructions are now intercepted by a narrative passage describing the cloud and its ‘function’ along the journey, with added instructions, this time concerning the two silver trumpets that were to be instrumental in rounding up the camp of Yisrael (as well as having other functions). A list of the heads of the tribes, as they were coming out of the wilderness of Sinai is next, while at the same time the text discusses the departure of Moshe’s father-in-law (here called Chovav). Chapter 11, almost in its entirety, is devoted to the story of the Israelites’ gluttony and desire for meat. An episode describing the bequeathing of a “portion” of Moshe’s spirit to the seventy elders is then related, with the final scene of Miriam and A’ha’ron maligning their brother Moshe, resulting in Miriam’s leprosy (chapter 12). Miriam had not only expressed jealousy (as did A’ha’ron) against her brother, but also decried him for having married a dark skinned woman. Now, having been struck by leprosy, her skin had lost its pigmentation rendering her completely white, making for quite a graphic and somewhat ironic lesson!
While the Levites’ purification rite entailed the sacrifice of two young bulls (v. 8), they (the Levites) were also to be “brought near” (“le’hakriv”, with its additional meaning, to “sacrifice or offer”, v. 9) before YHVH. At that point, “the sons of Israel” had to “put [or “lay”] their hands upon the Levites” (8:10). It was only then (v. 12) that the Levites could lay hands on the two bulls; one designated as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering. In Parashat Tetzaveh (Ex. 29:10 ff.), we looked at the "laying of hands," which is “samoch” (s.m.ch, samech, mem, kaf/chaf), with the primary meaning of the verb being to “lean upon." The "laying of hands" as is seen preformed here by the priests (as well as in Parashat Tetzaveh), denotes identification with the sacrifice, which is about to give up its life in ultimate submission. Interestingly, as the People of Yisrael “leaned” on the Levites, the latter vicariously carried their sins, just before their own were transferred to the bulls (v. 12).
Aside from reference to the laying, or the putting of hands for atoning purposes, “hands,” as well as other body parts, are mentioned a number of times in our Parasha. Let us look at the handling of this imagery, especially in the instances when identical images are juxtaposed, and consider how this literary device contributes to the descriptions in which it is employed, and whether at times a (subtle) message is conveyed thereby.
In 11:21-22, when Moshe displays some doubts as to YHVH’s ability to provide an entire nation with meat, he hears: “Has YHVH’s hand become short?” (Italics added). However, in other instances it is Moshe’s hand that is mentioned… in connection with YHVH’s mouth. In 9:20,23 and in 10:13 it says about the desert travels: “At the command – Hebrew: by the mouth - of YHVH they encamped, and at the command – by the mouth - of YHVH they traveled. They kept the charge of YHVH at the command – by the mouth - of YHVH, [and] by the hand of Moses” (italics added). Notice that the mouth of YHVH represents the charge, but that the execution is symbolized by the hand. Thus, Moshe’s aforementioned doubt raises the questions: if Moshe’s hand is ‘long enough’ to carry out YHVH’s word, is it at all possible that YHVH Himself is not able to implement that which He set out to do (that is, can His hand be "short")?
When Miriam and A’ha’ron try to slander Moshe, YHVH, while scolding them, also points out that with His servant Moshe He “speaks mouth to mouth” (12:8 italics added). Thus, YHVH’s authority is signified by the usage of the noun “mouth” which lends an extra emphasis to His Word and to what it implies. The “nose” is also mentioned here several times. YHVH had cause to be angry with the Israelites more than once in the course of our Parasha, as we see in 11:1 where His anger is kindled against them. This “kindling” here, and also in 12:9 (the episode with Miriam and A’ha’ron), is described as taking place in the nose. The anger that “burned in YHVH’s nose” was caused by the People’s over-desire for meat. YHVH, therefore, promises to provide them, for a period of one whole month, with so much meat…“until it comes out of your noses” (11:20, literal translation, italics added). The Israelites certainly selected to ‘butt noses’ with the wrong Person!
It is a well-known fact that the eating process starts with the eyes. In 11:6 the people murmur: “But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all besides this manna before our eyes” (italics added). The text continues to convey to us that “the manna was like coriander seed, and the color of it was like the color of bdellium,” with the word for “color” being “eye.” And so, the consumers’ (i.e. the Israelites’) eyes looked ‘into’ the ‘eyes’ of the food that was handed them, but they did not like what they saw! Just before that, when Moshe’s father-in-law expresses his desire to depart to his own land, Moshe, pleading with him, says, “… you were to us for eyes” (10:31), meaning ‘you directed and helped us find our way in the wilderness.’ Thus the usage of “eyes” conveys clarity, direction and care, while the eyes that were turned in the wrong direction of some (in this case the People of Yisrael), only made their owners blind to the generosity and care that was granted them freely.
In Parashat Yitro, Moshe’s father in law advised him to lighten up his load by sharing his duties and delegating authority (Ex. 18:13-27). It is interesting that here he is mentioned again, in proximity to the appointment of the seventy elders who were instated as a result of Moshe’s complaint regarding his workload (ref. 11:14).
Another body part mentioned in Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha is “bone.” In the first part of chapter 9 (v. 12, and Ex. 12:46) we read that no bones of the Pesach sacrifice were to be broken. The word for “bone” is “etzem,” whose root is a.tz.m (ayin, tzadi, mem). These three letters are shared by words such as “great, greatness, or might” (“atzum”), found for example in the promise regarding Avraham’s seed, which was destined to be a “great and mighty nation” (Gen. 18:18). It is also used for “forceful demand” or “protest” (“atzuma”. ref. Is. 41:21). “Multiplication” is another derivative of the same root, seen in Yirmiya’hu (Jeremiah) 5:6. In T’hilim (Psalms) 40:12 it is used for the “increase” of hair. “Strength” that is rendered as “otzem” and “otzma” - are other derivatives of the same root. At the same time a.tz.m also means the “essence of something” or “the very same,” such as in the oft-used expression “the very or selfsame.” In Parashat Bo, for example, we read: “And it came about at the end of four hundred and thirty years, to the very [“b’e’tzem”] day that all the hosts of YHVH went out from the land of Egypt” (Ex. 21:41 italics added). Carrying the marrow, the bone is indeed the bearer of the very essence of life, although in a compressed form. Yet out of this substance “strength, power, and greatness” emanate, implying also “increase” (in size and/or number). The employment of these terms not only discloses surprising anatomical knowledge, but it also evidences that the Hebrews must have been cognizant of the concept that a minuscule nucleus has a tremendous (sometimes latent) potential and an (explosive) force, such as is seen in the atom for example (and recognizable, of course, also in the ‘seed principle’).
The first part of chapter 10 deals with the silver trumpets, and their various uses. “Silver” is “kesef,” of the root k.s.f (kaf, samech, pey/fey) and has also come to be the generic word for “money.” The same root also serves the verb for “longing, yearning or desiring” (e.g. Gen. 31:30; Zeph. 2:1; Ps. 17:12; Job 14:15). Was it the longing for the pale precious metal that has given rise to this verb?
At the heart of the Parasha, in 10:35 and 36, we read the following powerful, vigorous and prophetic proclamation: “And it happened when the ark pulled up, Moses said, ‘Rise up, YHVH, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.’ And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, O YHVH, to the many thousands of Israel.’” Interestingly, upon YHVH’s rising the enemy has to flee, but His “rest” marks the returning and the restoration of Yisrael, and therefore their reconciliation with Elohim. This is all the more emphatic because the word for “return” – “shuva” – is reminiscent of “shev,” which means to “sit,” thus connecting Yisrael’s “return” to YHVH’s “rest.” “Shuv” may also be associated with “shevi” – “captivity,” as is seen, for example in the alliteration employed in T’hilim (Psalms) 126:4, where we read the plea: “Return YHVH our captivity,” which in Hebrew is, “shuva shvee’teynu,” while ”when YHVH brought back (“beshuv”) the returning/captivity (“shivat”) Tziyon we were as those dreaming a dream..." (Ps. 126:1).
In the course of Moshe’s complaint (12:11–15) concerning his burdensome task, he bemoans his lot, and addressing YHVH he asks rhetorically: “Have I conceived all this people? Did I bring them forth, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom like a nursing father carries the sucking child, to the land which You swore to their fathers?'” (v.12). “Nursing father” is a translation of “omen,” whose root is a.m.n (alef, mem, noon). One of the earliest references in the Tanach (Old Testament) to this root, is found in Shmot (Exodus) 17:12: “But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.” This, of course, is the description of the war with Amalek. The word for “steady” is “emuna,” which is also the common word for “faith” and “trust.” Indeed, a great act of faith was displayed there, in the wilderness of Refidim, where a bitter foe was defeated by simply lifting up the tired hands of an elderly man!
Moshe, A’ha’ron and Chur, and certainly Yehoshua, who was conducting the battle against the enemy, were faithful (i.e.“ne’emanim”), being another of this root’s derivatives (see Prov. 27:6 for example), in the practice of their faith. In the post-biblical developments of the Hebrew language, use was made of this root for the creation of the verb “hit’amen” which means to “practice,” and the nouns “me’yoo’ma’noot” for “proficiency”; “omanoot” for “art” and craftsmanship.” Hence an “artist” (see Son. of Sol. 7:1) is an “aman,” all of which express the requirement for faith to be active and be made evident by action (e.g. James 1:22; 2: 14 - 26). However, the primal meaning of the root a.m.n. is "to confirm, support,” from which stem verbs such as “to nourish, bring up and to nurse.” Examples of this are found in Mlachim Bet (2nd Kings) 10:1 and 5; Ruth 4:16 and Esther 2:7. In the description of Wisdom-personified (Proverbs 8), Wisdom - Elohim’s “delight” - is said to have been “brought up” - “amon” by Him (v. 30). This terminology is also used in the Hebrew translation of Galatians 3:24, for “schoolmaster,” or “tutor,” in reference to the role of the Torah in bringing up and leading us (faithfully, we may add) to the Messiah. Thus, a faithful tutor (“ne’eman”) can truly (“om’nam,” ref. Gen. 18:13) be trusted (“ne’eman”) to lead his or her protégé on to the path of faith (“emuna”).
The exhortation in Divrey Hayamim Bet (2nd Chronicles) 20:20, to “believe - “ha’aminu - in YHVH...,” is followed by the promise: “and you will be confirmed” (“te’amnu”). Avraham “believed in YHVH and He counted it to him as righteousness,” it says in B’resheet (Genesis) 15:6. It is here that the root a.m.n makes its first appearance in Scripture. Having faith in YHVH is what constituted Avraham righteous. It follows, therefore, that those who are likewise constituted righteous by faith (Gal. 3:24) “will [also] live by faith (Hab. 2:4 italics added), having an Elohim whose “faithfulness is unto all generations” (Ps. 119:90 italics added). AMEN (a.m.n)?
The process of associative thought and images, that is found in sequential passages such as we have already observed in this Parasha, is also evident in 11:24-30 and in its subsequent verses, 11:31-35, although being far apart thematically. When the seventy elders were gathered by Moshe, YHVH “took of the spirit – ru’ach - which was on the latter and placed it on them” (v. 25). It was thus that they were enabled to function in their newly bestowed roles. Immediately following this episode, in the last part of chapter 11, we read, “And a wind – ru’ach - went forth from YHVH, and it cut off quails from the sea and let them fall by the camp…” (v. 31). Since “ru’ach” is both spirit and wind, this reference to YHVH setting up a team of elders endowed by the Spirit, is not coincidentally followed by Him ‘employing’ the ru’ach once again, though for a totally different purpose, and thus calling our attention to His total control over all matters. In the latter case it was for the purpose of driving the quail from the sea in order to satisfy the gluttonous demands of the people (ref. 11:31).
Another word connecting these two passages is the verb “asof,” which is “to gather”. But while in the first section we read about Moshe “gathering the elders” (v. 24 italics added), a much different picture follows, with the people of Yisrael gathering the quail (v. 32). In 11:4 another “gathering” is being referred to, it is that of the “mixed multitude.” In 11:4 they are described as lusting for the meat. Mixed multitude is “asaf’soof,” which is another derivative of the root a.s.f. - “gather or collect.” At the very end of our Parasha we read about Miriam, who was quarantined for a week (12:15) following her leprosy. After being kept at a distance from the camp, Miriam was “brought in” – or literally “gathered” (12:15) – once again of the root a.s.f - so that the people could continue on their journey.